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‘I feel so blessed to be alive’

On March 22, Kelly Asbell had to be hospitalized again. She’s been in a hospital bed ever since.

One day earlier, the Valparaiso mother of 10-year-old twins celebrated her 40th birthday – a milestone in her sickly life – by performing 40 acts of kindness for strangers.

Kelly Asbell walks with her daughter in the hall at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago.

I shadowed Asbell on her birthday as she delivered fresh tulips to an old woman in a nursing home, dropped off coins at a laundromat, put quarters into candy machines, left toys on a playground and juice boxes at a day care center, among other gestures.

“I wasn’t expected to live past my teenage years,” she told me.

At 10, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an inherited life-endangering disorder that severely damages the lungs and digestive system. The average life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis was 37.4 years in 2008, according to the University of Rochester Medical School.

“When you have cystic fibrosis, you can’t take anything for granted, especially another year of life,” Asbell told me at a Starbucks while taking a breather from her tour of 40 acts of kindness on March 21.

That was the last time I saw her. Within 24 hours, she would be hospitalized yet again in her life for serious breathing problems. Her diseased lungs were suffocating her. Her health was again getting progressively worse.

Kelly Asbell, after double lung transplant surgery, with her surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, at Loyola University Medical Center. (SOURCE: Kelly Asbell)

Asbell spent the entire month of April gasping for air with medical assistance. Doctors determined that only a double lung transplant would save her life. On May 4, Asbell was placed on a transplant list.

“JUST LISTED!” stated a handmade sign she held from her hospital bed.

She posted a photo on Facebook of herself, looking thin and gaunt, yet with a smile.

“Prayers needed,” she later wrote.

There have been more than 38,000 lung transplants completed in the United States since 1988, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. The one-year survival rate from such a procedure is 80 percent, though it drops to 50 percent at five years.

Long-term survival after a lung transplant is not as promising as it is for other organ transplants, such as a kidney or liver. Asbell has always known this.

One of her close friends, Alyssa Mathas of Hobart, was diagnosed as a baby with cystic fibrosis. By 16, she needed a double lung transplant to save her life.

In 2010, a healthy pair of lungs from an anonymous donor became available. Surgery was successful. A fresh breath of life entered her frail body.

Just months after Mathas’ transplant surgery, she took part in a 5K race with Asbell.

“We were no longer sick patients, but triumphant athletes,” Crowe told me at that time.

Two years later, Mathas’ health plummeted again. She was airlifted to a St. Louis hospital with respiratory distress and later put into a medically-induced coma. Mathas died Jan. 23, 2013. She was 19.

“I want to see my twins graduate from high school in seven years,” Asbell told me from Loyola University Medical Center while waiting for her own double lung transplant.

Thirteen days after being placed on the list, at 8:11 p.m. on a Thursday, Asbell received a phone call.

“They asked if I was interested in two beautiful young lungs that seemed perfect for me,” Asbell said. “To say I am humbled and I have felt every emotion unimaginable is an understatement.”

On May 18, she underwent a double lung transplant at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago, taking her first breaths with donor lungs.

“Well dear Kelly, hour 3, you are in the midst of the transplant,” her husband, Scott, wrote on Facebook to update friends, family and well-wishers. “I wonder when they took out the first lung, was your other lung able to support your body.”

“There is something new and foreign in your body. I know if I was in the room with you I would be lovingly holding your hand,” he wrote.

Later that night, Scott wrote another update: “Waiting is the name of the game right now.”

Hours passed. Her family waited. Finally, her transplant surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, informed Asbell’s family that everything went fine. He even showed them a photo of Asbell’s diseased lungs, saying they weighed 10 pounds, filled with bacteria and mucus.

Scott posted on Asbell’s Facebook page: “The woman known for Random Acts of Kindness was given the biggest gift of all – her life back.”

The next day, he wrote: “Kelly has tubes coming out of her from every direction and in places no one wants. But all this she will not remember. I am amazed at the grace God can show to people like us.”

Asbell’s health slowly improved. She took her first deep breaths in years. She got out of her hospital bed. She slowly walked the halls. She sipped her first Starbucks drink in a long time.

Six days after the surgery, Asbell was feeling “survivor grief” for the donor of her lungs.

“Though I don’t know this person, I’m working on learning to accept this gift with full open arms,” she said.

Each time she notices herself walking or talking without becoming breathless, she says, “My donor has such great lungs,” instead of saying “my lungs.”

“I am so thankful to my donor,” she told me last week. “All I know is they were young lungs. I’m not really accepting emotionally that they are mine. But I feel so blessed to be alive.”

Just recently, her twins visited her for the first time since the transplant.

“I was so excited to see them,” Asbell said after making four laps in the hall with them. “Like a toddler learning to walk.”

Recently, Asbell and her husband celebrated their 12-year wedding anniversary.

“Nothing like spending an anniversary in a hospital,” Scott wrote on Facebook. “Not too often we get to have a double lung transplant and a party in a hospital room.”

“I want to just live more in the moment without being worried about the next day,” she told me.

And her next breath.